Right, your starter for ten – no, let’s make that three points, this week.
Is being nice and being successful two states of existence that are, and forever will be, mutually exclusive?
Our current run of disappointing form and results has led to some Norwich fans suggesting that the club is more committed to cultivating a reputation as being a ‘nice’ – as in the whole football club package – than it is of being successful and aiming to win football matches.
Whatever the cost.
In other words, a club that perpetuates, and prefers to rest upon, the gently worn laurels of being homespun, friendly and community orientated.
It’s an interesting argument. Let’s look at the perceived nasty followed by the perceived nice.
The Paul Lambert era is frequently cited as an example of the football coming first. It was certainly one that was based on the football club going all out to get what it wanted and to thrive on the pitch rather than in the bank. A heavy defeat saw a club legend unceremoniously dumped out of the club with his replacement immediately headhunted from a then league rival.
We came, we saw, we took what we wanted. And we didn’t give two you know whats for the consequences.
It was exhilarating stuff.
Paul Lambert didn’t as much take the football club by the scruff of the neck as give it a good kicking from the bottom upwards. Richter scale stuff. Players who weren’t good enough were out. Overnight. Coaching practices the same. Footballing revolution from a club that had always seemed to prefer evolution.
Working alongside Lambert was, at the time, a newly appointed David McNally. He didn’t take prisoners. He stared Colchester United in the face and won. He did the same to a Sunday tabloid. He even got the police involved in the case of a fan who’d leaked pictures of the clubs new playing kit.
You didn’t mess with him just as, if you were a player, you didn’t mess with Lambert.
Remember the latter’s battle cry, picked up for all to hear from the BBC microphones from the touchline during one of our home games during his time in charge?
“Don’t f*****g lose.”
A collective shiver of fear would have gone down the spine of his players at that moment. There was no way they were going to lose now. No way. Impossible. Because the consequences of doing so were just too horrible to contemplate.
He and David McNally were tough, ornery bastards. But they were our tough, ornery bastards.
And we loved them for it.
We didn’t just win the League One title during that first triumphant season under the new boys, pitch and boardroom – we bludgeoned our way to it, sweeping not only opponents aside but detractors and critics as well. We were a mad, bad runaway train with a massive snow plough at the front.
Colchester United and Robbie Cowling, Leeds United, News of the World.
Get out of our way.
The 5-0 win at Colchester was particularly pleasing and a real sign of the intent at the club. It was wet, cold and windy; the pitch was a ploughed field and the welcome, by fans and club officials alike, was hostile. Lambert didn’t give a proverbial, openly and publicly waving at the massed Norwich fans. Defiance all round.
And, at its lead was Grant Holt. A leader. Unconventional and unorthodox but no matter, he was someone you would rally to. And people did, team mates and fans alike. The famous photograph of him laughing during the carnage we unleashed upon Ipswich Town at Portman Road a season later is iconic, a sign of the way we were going about things at that time.
Winning games, again and again and again. It’s what we did and what we were known for. We weren’t “nice”, we didn’t offer a side dish of three points along with the warm welcome and chance to meet Delia.
We didn’t travel to away games in desperate hope. We did so in warm expectation.
March 13, 2010: Huddersfield away. Remember the day?
They were top 10, unbeaten at home and uber-confident. Yes, we were the league leaders. But we were also a soft southern touch; we wouldn’t like it up them ‘oop north, they’d soon teach us a lesson.
And, after three minutes it looked like that might be the case. It looked even more like it might be the case with just half an hour left when we were still 1-0 down. But only to the Huddersfield fans. We knew we’d win. Just knew it. And we did, 3-1, bang-bang-bang, three goals in a quarter of an hour. Job done.
You couldn’t help but love it. Not just the win but the way we went about it. Again.
We weren’t the nice club. We were the club that did whatever it took to win games.
Yet, ultimately, Paul Lambert felt he could no longer give the club his time and services. Why did he leave? His departure has been debated over and over again. Yet one thing is clear. He wanted out. He’d even, so we are meant to believe, flirted with Burnley at one point.
This is a man, remember, who was once quoted as saying: “I’m very happy at this club and will remain here for as long as Delia wants me.”
What made him unhappy? Or did he feel that the club, aka Delia, didn’t want him anymore?
Or didn’t want or seem to share his drive and ambition for what he wanted the club to achieve?
All questions that have been asked – and not the only ones. But I don’t have the answers and neither does anyone apart from the man himself.
But I do think something changed at the club when Lambert left. It felt more than just him taking his leave of us when he went. Something else seemed to go with him.
The drive he brought with him and impregnated into the club’s culture. The way we went about things. That degree of nastiness, the grit, the drive, the passion – as exemplified by Holty on the pitch and Lambert off it.
Lambert’s successor, Chris Hughton, seemed to be everything that Paul Lambert wasn’t.
Lambert was fire and brimstone, a bag of frustrated energy, a bomb waiting to go off. Tetchy, impatient and driven by one thing – winning.
Hughton seemed to be his polar opposite. Calm, considered, polite even. An ocean of peace on the touchline, pleasant, eager to please, one who took up his position at the end of the tunnel post-match to shake the hands of each and every person who walked past him.
I remember walking past Chris Hughton after a game one Saturday afternoon, the 1-1 draw against QPR. It was his second in charge. He was walking past the entrance to the Holiday Inn so, as you would, I said ‘hello’. Nothing more, I didn’t stop and didn’t expect a chat. I then noticed he was on his phone as he interrupted the call and said words to the effect of “I’m on the phone, just give us a minute and I’ll be with you.”
Lambert would probably have thrown his phone at me. Well no, he wouldn’t, as I probably wouldn’t have said anything to him in the first place.
A silly comparison to make I know. Yet it summed up Hughton, for me, in an instant. Time for everyone. An everyman who was popular, considerate and ultra-professional.
A good fit for a football club that has always seen itself in the same way. The two pieces of the jigsaw fitted perfectly.
Not that there is anything wrong in being popular, considerate and ultra-professional. Far from it, they are great virtues to possess.
Yet they don’t seem to fit in with football anymore.
Or is it not really as simple as that?
We have long attracted critics from within who have said that the club are ‘too nice’ and that image and a good standing in the game, and within the club, seems to come above looking for success on the pitch. The same success we last achieved, like it or not, under the occasionally ruthless duo of Lambert on it and McNally off it.
Lambert has long now gone whilst even if McNally’s power and influence has not been eroded, both his public and media presence has waned in the last couple of years or so.
Is it a coincidence that our presence and performance on the pitch has also been on a downward curve over the last couple of years as well?
And that, with the appointment of Hughton being followed by that of Neil Adams – another man seen as being overwhelmingly pleasant, cordial and easy going – we’re preferring the nice club option to the nasty club one?
Are we too nice off the pitch to be successful on it?